Editor’s note: As a feasibility study on local currency gets underway in Ann Arbor, local history columnist Laura Bien takes a look at how local currencies were used in the past. Bien’s new book on local history, “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives (MI): Tripe-Mongers, Parker’s Hair Balsam, The Underwear Club & More (American Chronicles)” can be ordered through Amazon.
Local currencies are nothing new to either Ypsilanti or Ann Arbor. In addition to 19th-century municipal banks, both cities created local currencies about 80 years ago. They weren’t created to boost local spending or civic pride. Ypsilanti created her local currency, called scrip, in the fall of 1931 because the city had no other money to pay municipal employees.
The currency included paper pennies.
“It was really just an IOU,” recalled Paul Ungrodt, in an April 15, 1975 Ypsilanti Press article, one of a Great Depression retrospective series. “[T]here was no money; hardly anyone could afford to pay taxes, so we made do with the scrip.” In the summer of 1929, Ungrodt was proud to have secured the prestigious job of Ypsilanti Chamber of Commerce secretary. A few months later, the stock market crashed.
Ypsilanti’s slide into the Depression wasn’t immediate, but two years after the crash, conditions were grim. Little federal help was available, aside from a few shipments of federal flour and Red Cross cloth. Ypsi Boy Scouts led door-to-door clothing drives. The used clothes were taken to the city welfare office at Michigan Avenue and River Street, “renovated,” and given to the poor.
Church and social groups held canning parties and put up thousands of quarts of food, some for distribution to the poor. One September 1932 Ypsilanti Daily Press article reported that Lincoln schoolgirls in the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades canned peaches, tomatoes, and pepper relish for winter use in their own cafeteria. The girls also put up 65 quarts of concentrated grape juice, made from grapes grown by boys in the school’s “agriculture department.”
In 1931, one city council member proposed that municipal employees in the “streets and parks departments should be put on a four day shift after Oct. 1,” reported a Sept. 22 Daily Press article, “and unemployed men put to work under them in shifts to keep the work done and provide labor for those whom the city must help. These unemployed will be paid in scrip which can be used for specified groceries in any city store.”
To get the streets and parks jobs, the unemployed had to apply for an identification card. Aside from standard questions about age and address, the applicant had to provide the name and address of their previous employer, whether they were in debt on their furniture, car, or anything else, and whether they had received any other aid in the past.
The city received 400 applications. Roughly three-quarters were married men, about half were over 40, and about half were white. Fewer than half owned a home, but rented an apartment, lived in a boarding house, or rented a single room. Almost a third of applicants were the sole supporters of their family, and almost a quarter had more than two dependents. Two women applied.
The number indicated a want that was more pressing than some believed to be the case. “It should be understood,” Paul Ungrodt was quoted in an Oct. 30, 1931 Daily Press article, “that many of these unemployed who have registered, although the total is apparently great, are not hard pressed. Many have relatives and the condition of many others is not serious because they have had work until recently. Furthermore, there are numerous instances where more than one in a family registered.”
As a representative of the city’s economic health, Ungrodt may have felt a need to downplay the problem. Years later in the 1975 Press retrospective article, he characterized the times more negatively. “If your business failed either you were lucky enough to find someone else to work for or you simply did nothing,” he [said]. “But there weren’t jobs for most people. It wasn’t a pretty picture by any means.”
In preparation for the work program, city officials decided “the city will profit more and the poor as much by a program of work which will be of permanent benefit rather than the creation of odd jobs of no lasting value,” according to an Oct. 10, 1931 Daily Press article. City officials planned a 390-foot sewer as the first project, to be followed by work whose cost in scrip and materials could be covered by bonds issued by the city. City clerk Harvey Holmes designed the scrip, and it was printed in town.
The article concluded, “‘[A]ll who expect dole from the city will be required to give work in return,’ Mayor Matthew Max has insisted.”
Later that month, “[t]he first issue of scrip money by the city of Ypsilanti was made,” said the Oct. 21, 1931 Daily Press, “when City Clerk Harvey Holmes paid seven men a total of $89.25 [$1,250 today, or an average of $180 each].
“Scrip will be accepted only for the articles printed on the back of the money,” continued the article, “and each piece must be signed by the man presenting it. If he cannot write, the merchant accepting the scrip signs for him, and his thumb print is made on the scrip. There will be no change made in either cash or scrip. Persons using it must purchase the full amount they present.
“Scrip is issued in denominations of 1 cent, 5 cents, 10 cents, 25 cents, or $1.”
The list of items scrip could buy was restricted, the article said, to “coal, coke [fuel], bread, navy beans, bacon, baking powder, corn meal, corn starch, canned soup, canned peas, canned tomatoes, canned hominy, canned corn, coffee, crackers, flour, lard, matches, milk, macaroni, oleo, oatmeal, onions, potatoes, pepper, prunes, pancake flour, rice, soap, sugar, salt, [baking] soda, salt pork, tea, and yeast.”
Fresh meat and fish, butter, eggs, cheese, and fresh fruits and vegetables were not allowed.
A year and a half later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the Federal Emergency Relief Act which granted money to the poor. FERA was followed by other New Deal programs that addressed unemployment. Ypsilanti scrip was phased out.
Today, the surviving examples are only a reminder of the onetime local currency, earned with a pick and shovel, that put food on Ypsilanti tables.
Thanks to Gerry Pety and Derek Spinei for help with images. Images courtesy of Ypsilanti Archives.
This biweekly column features a Mystery Artifact contest. You are invited to take a look at the artifact and try to deduce its function.
The previous Mystery Artifact was guessed correctly by Larry Works: a glue pot. He added, “Most likely used by woodworkers to put on hide glue in the last millennium. Had to be heated over a fire in order to soften the glue before it could be applied.” That may be – the Ypsilanti Historical Museum information for this artifact indicates that its inner chamber could be removed to add hot coals into the outer chamber.
This week’s Mystery Artifact, about two feet wide, bristles with a square of pointed metal teeth. Take your best guess and good luck!
“In the Archives” is a biweekly series written for The Ann Arbor Chronicle by Laura Bien. Her work can also be found in the Ypsilanti Citizen, the Ypsilanti Courier, and YpsiNews.com as well as the Ann Arbor Observer. She is the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives.” Bien also writes the historical blog “Dusty Diary” and may be contacted at email@example.com.